As Valentine’s Day draws near, it is strange to imagine a time in history, that this special "holiday of love" was completely unknown to a majority of the world. Although the Catholic and Orthodox Churches venerated the early Christian priest-martyr, St. Valentine for centuries; a celebration in honour of lovers, with greeting cards, chocolate hearts, and red roses, was almost unfamiliar to most of Europe until recent times.
The Valentine’s holiday of lovers originated during the Renaissance in Elizabethan England, where the tradition of courtly love flourished. From there, it came to America. In Poland, Valentine's Day or Walentynki (vah-len-TIN-kee) actually did not make it’s appearance until after the collapse of Communism. After the borders opened, Poles were quite quick to adopt this special holiday and make it their own.
So the question is; how did Poles actually express their romantic interest to the lady of their heart in earlier times? Where did one meet their future spouse in Old Poland? What were some of the courting traditions that were practiced?
In rural Poland, there was no dating in former times. Society was much more formal and strict. Courting usually took place within the context of family, religious and village social occasions, as well as, with traditional rites, most of which were under the supervision of elders. Young people usually only interacted in the company of family and mutual family friends. Marriage was very important in Polish culture and happened at a young age. It was considered shameful when a girl of marriageable age was not spoken for by the holiday of Candlemas (i.e. Matki Boskiej Gromniczej) on February 2.
In the Polish village, on a day-to-day basis, the youth made each other’s acquaintance as neighbours and while working together in the fields. During more festive occasions, potential love matches were sometimes made on Farmer’s Market Day or after Sunday Mass, when entire families stood around and socialised. This gave young people a wonderful possibility to chat and flirt with one another.
Parish festivals (i.e. odpusty) were another important opportunity for socializing between the sexes. After Mass, couples would meet and wander among the numerous food booths and stands of devotional items, toys and folk handicrafts. In non-fasting seasons, the tavern was the focus of village social life on Sunday afternoons and evenings, along with food, drinking, song, and the dancing of boisterous polkas and obereks.
A good portion of socializing between the sexes took place within the domestic context. During the winter, from the pre-Christmas Advent fast, all the way through the end of Carnival, family and neighbors would meet at someone’s cottage for so-called spinners’ evenings (i.e. prządki). During these evenings, certain tasks such as spinning flax or making sauerkraut were done collectively by the women, while singing religious hymns during advent, and carols and folk songs after Christmas. Young people attended and socialised.
Another opportunity for young people to meet were the visits of maskers or mummers (i.e. przebierańcy, herody, kolędnicy) . These were groups composed exclusively of young men dressed in exotic costumes (usually characters from nativity plays, forest creatures, or carolers) who “trick or treated” their way from cottage to cottage. They were given treats of liquor, food, and money by their hosts. They were especially welcome at cottages painted light blue, indicating the presence of unmarried girls. These noisy, disguised, pranksters, were regarded as bringers of good fortune to households that they visited. The tremendous din that they created was also believed to be a method of chasing away the demons of winter. Of course, it was a prime opportunity for the costumed young men to flirt and dance with the young ladies
So once a potential couple was given the opportunity to meet, how did the young man make his romantic interest known to the maiden that caught his eye?
Annual folk rituals, provided perfect occasions for young men to express their infatuation with a favorite young lady. Some examples are: mock flogging of girls with pussy willow branches (i.e. Slavic palms) on Palm Sunday; and the dousing of girls by young men with buckets of water on Easter Monday, known as Śmigus-Dyngus Day. (Contrary to how it may appear, girls look forward to these traditions, and the attention they get from favorite boys. Not getting this attention was interpreted by the girls as them being unattractive.) :-)
The placing of Maypoles (i.e. słupy majowe) by young men in front of a girl’s house on Pentecost, was also a unique and open declaration of love. Maypoles pine tree trunks, decorated with garlands of flowers and long, colorful ribbons were also symbols of fertility and of spring.
The holiday that came closest to remotely resembling anything like Valentine’s Day was St. Casimir’s Day (i.e. Kaziuki). This holiday was celebrated in Wilno (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, but formerly within the borders of the Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian Commonwealth). On this day, usually during Lent, there was a break in the fast and a great bazaar was held in Wilno. It’s prominent features included sales of the Wilno palm (colorful bands of flowers and herbs wrapped around sticks, and used on Palm Sunday), and sales of large, colorful gingerbread hearts with romantic dedications to loved ones. The custom continues today, not only in Wilno and Grodno, but also in Szczecin and Poznań.
* The above customs were primarily, though not exclusive, practiced by the peasantry. Among the landed gentry (i.e. ziemiaństwo), occasions for courting included family holiday celebrations at the manor, patron saint names’ days, hunting parties, sleighing parties, and balls.